In late 2007, my cousin, Caryn, and her husband, Andrew, moved from New York City to Hong Kong. I had been all over the continental United States, but apart from one afternoon spent in Juarez, Mexico while driving through Texas, I had—at twenty-five years old—never been out of my home country. So I got myself a passport and in the spring of 2008 took a trip to visit my cousin and her family. I have gone back every year since. I stay about a month at a time, occasionally venturing to nearby countries that I would have likely never otherwise had occasion to see—weekends in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan.
In four years of visiting Hong Kong I have made no headway with (indeed, no attempt at) Mandarin or Cantonese. A year of bar-mitzvah study didn't shed a candle's worth of light onto my Hebrew, and eighteen years in Miami, Florida didn't make so much as a dent in my Spanish—for awhile I could explain that the tomatoes were in the bathroom; now I can't even do that. What I mean is that I have long since resigned myself to monolingualism, and therefore some degree of fumbling my way through the world.
Hong Kong is, of course, a forgiving place to be an English-only speaker. The land's long history as a British colony and its present self-identification as an international capitalist paradise combine to ensure that English is spoken widely and fairly well. You can count, for example, on English signage on streets, maps, public transportation, and in many businesses, though it's worth pointing out that this last condition holds primarily in the central parts of Hong Kong island—i.e. the ex-pat and tourist districts. The further out you go, the less your presence is anticipated and perhaps desired.
The longer I stayed in Hong Kong, and the more times I went back, the more comfortable I became with taking further-flung day-trips alone into Kowloon and the New Territories. Indeed, some of my fondest memories of Hong Kong are of days spent wandering the streets of Mongkok, exploring countless shoe stores and below-ground video game palaces, ordering food to eat at street stalls. You don't need words for this. Pretty much everything's on a stick, so you point at the stick you want and they dunk it in the fryer. You can go all day in these districts without hearing English spoken, apart from the bi-lingual announcements on the subway or your own voice if you happen to talk to yourself. Uncomprehending, you are insulated from the great noise of radios and conversations, and the printed blather of thousands of advertisements and billboards. The feeling of pure isolation in such packed, throbbing streets is a true treasure.
Whenever I come to visit, Caryn and Andrew make a point of clipping articles about things to do, see, and eat that they think might appeal to me. In the summer of 2010 they saved me an article from the local English-language paper, HK Weekly
, about the best places to eat traditional beef brisket. The article highlighted a restaurant called Kwan Kee in the far-flung district of Tai Po. Kwan Kee was identified as one of the last places in Hong Kong to serve brisket of bull penis. I decided to undertake the trip in pursuit of the delicacy. Caryn and Andrew expressed—or anyway feigned—interest of their own, but ultimately decided to take their kids to see a Sesame Street stage show instead.
Tai Po is in the New Territories, closer to the Chinese border than to Hong Kong Island. I understood that I was going far beyond the English-centric zone, and attempted to prepare accordingly. I wrote down detailed directions for myself, including the train route (which included two transfers and a line I'd never used before) and the path from the station to the small market square where Kwan Kee was located. For good measure, I brought along the article I'd read.
Kwan Kee opens daily at 1 PM and stays open until it runs out of food. I set out from the Central Mid-levels around 11 AM, aiming to get there when it opened. I arrived in Tai Po and stepped into the stifling heat of the late July day. The market square was maybe ten minutes from the station and I was soaked when I got there. There were many food stalls, restaurants, and discount clothing stores. I hustled over to Kwan Kee which was about to open and where there was already a small line. I got on it, and felt lucky and wise when the line doubled then tripled in length behind me. I was on top of my game! It was about twenty minutes until I was invited through the sliding glass front door and offered a seat at a table with a stranger.
Kwan Kee seats about twelve people at a time. There's one round table in the middle of the small room, and a few tables for two against the walls. They are world-renowned—back at my cousins' place I'd watched a feature about them on the CNN website. Nonetheless, I knew they were not exactly a tourist destination and I anticipated an absence of English menus. What I did not anticipate, however, was a lack of pictures on the menu for me to point to, or the fact that the staff didn't seem to know two words of English between them. Flummoxed, I riffled around in my backpack and produced the article from HK Weekly
. I handed it to the waitress. My hope was that they would be aware of the article's having been published, and would therefore know why I had come.
They weren't and they didn't.
This didn't leave me with a lot of options. Naturally, I considered pointing at my own crotch, but I could hardly be assured that such a gesture would be read as intended—indeed it might have made things much worse in a hurry. I considered abandoning my quest. I could point to whatever looked good on the next table—everything in the place smelled good. Or I could leave, defeated, and slink back to the main square to visit the food stalls, point at the same old cuttlefish balls on sticks.
Suddenly, a lucky break! A customer called out to the waitress in Chinese and the waitress, who still had the article in her hand, brought it over to the customer. She was a Chinese woman about my mother's age and she could read English! I got up and went over to that table.
"Yes," she said to me, thinking I wanted to verify that I'd found the right restaurant. "You are here."
"You can read this?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Okay," I said, and pointed to the line about penis brisket. "This is what I want to eat."
She started laughing at me. Then she said something to her lunch partner and the waitress, and then all of them were laughing at me—the whole damn restaurant. The waitress asked the customer a question. The customer addressed me.
"She wants to know how you say," the customer said.
"Penis," I said.
"Ah, peh niss?" the customer said.
"Penis," I said.
"Pee niss," the customer and the waitress said together.
"Penis," we all said together, getting the pronunciation right this time. We said it together a few times over to be sure. I was led back to my seat. The waitress took up my menu and went back to the kitchen to order my
Photo used by permission of the author.